Move Commercial Business Breakfast:
The evolution of Manchester’s workspace
As Move Commercial’s 10th anniversary year continues, what better time to reflect on a decade of change in the office market? We rounded up an audience of commercial property industry insiders at Bruntwood’s Neo building in Manchester for a morning of networking and debate about how the city’s workspaces have evolved in the last 10 years.
Curated by Natasha Young
Oliver Thomas senior director, CBRE
David Harrison client director, Godel Technologies
Gavin Sorby managing director, Buttress
Tell us about the key office trends you’ve seen in Manchester over the past 10 years.
OT: The recession’s had a massive impact as we’ve seen office take-up dip and people try to react to cutting costs. What’s been borne out of the last 10 years is a real drive on flexibility and there have been various ways and means of how people have gone about that. Fads have included things like desk booking systems and trying to drive technology too quickly, and things just fizzle out and become a thing of the past. When you talk about flexibility the drive to collaborate has had a real impact on how things are shaping up, whether that be the landlords’ reaction to creating more flexible spaces or the occupiers’ take on trying to attract and retain staff.
GS: One that didn’t work as well as intended was home-working. There’s a place for all these things and I don’t think any of them die out completely but when you look at sending people home to work, have they got a place to work at home? Lots of us have home offices but lots of people don’t so they don’t like going home because they’ve got kids or dogs running around or a fridge full of food that stops them working. People like to communicate and be part of a community. One insurance company was looking at home-working as a means of saving costs by reducing their office space, and when they asked their staff they didn’t want it. The staff wanted to come to work for interaction.
What are the main business needs affecting office space right now, and how do they compare to 10 years ago?
DH: Candidate attractions seem to certainly be key for technology businesses, and one thing we’re finding in the sector is the skills gap seems to be ever widening. Having a flagship office that pulls candidates in and makes them feel engaged and active when they come to work [is important]. When I first started my job it was essentially working out of a portable cabin 10 or 15 years ago. People are now making decisions on a broader range of things like access to amenities and transport. When they come to work, has it got on-site crèche facilities or an on-site gym? I’ve seen start-ups with a yoga centre for things like mindfulness, so it’s about having a more holistic approach to attracting candidates and an office becoming almost like a mini eco system. It promotes more of a social space rather than an office purely being an office.
OT: Spinningfields is quite a visionary development that was born in the early 2000s and was highly focused on becoming a financial district. Fast forward 10 years and look at Spinningfields now – it’s a leisure hub. There’s been so much work there around placemaking, which is a relatively new buzzword and has probably been going on for years but is kind of becoming the new ‘collaboration’. You only have to look at the scale of semi-temporary construction that’s now going on, with the development of The Ivy outside No. 1 Spinningfields, to show there’s so much money being ploughed into creating that sense of community. The Oast House was only supposed to be here for about six months as a concept but it’s been here for eight or nine years, and it’s moved. The attraction and getting people into a space, and how that assists with the community side of things, is a real plus.
“Quirky old listed sites can be a pain in most portfolios where you’ve really struggled to create a new lease of life around a historic building but the tech industry loves it.”
How well is Manchester’s office market keeping pace with businesses’ changing demands, particularly when you consider technological developments?
DH: From a personal perspective in terms of connectivity and wireless, Manchester offices seem to be keeping up with the likes of London. At Godel Technologies we’ve got quite an interactive office with HD conferencing and cameras that follow you around the room when you walk in, and that enables us to have conversations with both remote clients and parties overseas. Having offices that are technology enabled has been fantastic in making sure that connectivity is key for us.
OT: As a creative hub Manchester, outside of London, is top of the pile and with various research papers around on why that is I think universities have been and will continue to be a massive catalyst around how the business community now reacts to the tech and creative age. Your average tech company is probably around 50-odd people so relatively that’s quite a small office. The creation of a space like Neo is an example of the market reacting to the requirements of the tech market. The work at Circle Square, for example, is a completely different kettle of fish. That’s looking at the university as a hub, building around it, supporting the graduation process and trying to keep talent in a geographical location which is really important. I was quite surprised to see Glasgow and Edinburgh are right up there in terms of technology, but more on the computer sciences side, and the rate at which their office markets have flourished in the out-turn from the recession has been quite impressive. Geographical locations are trying to hoard the talent and then the businesses will come and lock down their future in those cities.
GS: It’s hard to be creative from nine to five, and then you’re not creative the rest of the time so your offices have to be able to adapt. They are, I think. They’re more flexible – they’ll let you in early or late, if you want to be creative in the middle of the night you can go to work in the middle of the night, and that’s got to be embraced. There’s a company in the States, and I personally think it goes a bit too far, but it doesn’t think people can be creative five days a week so it employs them three days a week to be creative and they can do whatever they want for the rest of the time. That might not be nine to five so they’ve got a big warehouse where their staff live and there’s a crèche in it, there’s everything you’d want, so they can be creative in the middle of the night, in the morning, Tuesday or Thursday or whenever they like but they live there. I’m not sure if that’s the ultimate flexibility or the ultimate prison but it’s the way things are going – people driven and technology driven.
DH: Lots of businesses have bought into the wellbeing of their employees being paramount with things like health and fitness and mindfulness. It’s also about reducing sick days, which has an effect on the output for that business. Also putting little things on like healthy food and drink options at work, even in a managed office space – I’ve seen plenty of those set ups which is really good.
Manchester’s creative, media and digital sectors are prominent. Given their focus on ideas and collaboration, as well as workspace benchmarks set by industry giants like Google, what impact have those sectors had on Manchester offices across the spectrum?
OT: We’ve seen landlords committing to speculatively creating spaces to collaborate. There are plenty of examples across Manchester, and plenty of other cities collaborating with city councils, colleges and universities. With that confidence the old idea around incubator space – where the perception is you get a box room and it’s white – couldn’t be further from collaboration or collaborative space. You need to create an environment where there’s an ability to interact because lots of tech companies do very niche things and if you give them a forum and a place to talk and collaborate you’ll get business generation, especially given the size of some tech companies. They’re small and being locked in a room with the same 15 people day in, day out is unhealthy so I think it gives the confidence to landlords to do it and Manchester is a shining example of a city that’s backing itself. £87 billion worth of creative, positive impact on our economy should give anybody the confidence to say ‘right, that’s a good area to focus on’.
Has it had a ripple effect into other kinds of offices; for instance Grade A spaces that perhaps aren’t occupied by creative sector firms?
GS: It comes back to attracting staff, and then you’re looking at millennials and what they want, what they’re expecting, how fast they expect to move on, who they’re working with, what the environment’s like and what they’re learning. Also is there a gym, a bike store, a shower? I think that drives the change so it’s the people and the technology ultimately, and the office market responds eventually.
DH: It seems like there’s a shift away from the ‘80s and ‘90s cubicle focus to a more open plan, slightly integrated social space where you’ve got a hot desk, but it’s more of a social interaction space where you have other businesses cohabiting which drives things like sharing ideas. You can then get a new business off the back of that or something you can go to market together on. There certainly seems to be more vibrant and interactive spaces which are colourful and not just your stale grey and white walls. I’ve been to businesses where they’ve had a place called an ASE (Acceleration Solution Environment). It’s a fully interactive space but there are things like manuals from NASA and Buzz Lightyears to generate ideas and encourage creativity. It’s quite unique but it’s not for everybody – it has to mirror the needs and culture of your business.
OT: Grade A space is Grade A space – how do you make that sexy? Well it’s by adding a roof garden, introducing leisure options, creative space for collaboration at ground floor level, and placemaking. What happens on your route to work and when you leave? What’s on your doorstep? The creative market has boosted lots of the secondary building stock. Quirky old listed sites can be a pain in most portfolios where you’ve really struggled to create a new lease of life around a historic building but the tech industry loves it. What was probably perceived five to seven years ago as a bit of a barrier, having lots of smaller cellular space in a listed building for example, is actually quite an appealing thing now whether it’s a serviced office or actually space that is let out. There are shining examples around Manchester.
GS: There’s a definite move towards something that has a root in history. Everybody has [a smartphone]. They get music, books and everything on it and there’s nothing tactile, nothing they can hold onto to do with the past and where they’ve come from, which is why they’re buying LP records again even though they’ve nothing to play them on!
“The old idea around incubator space – where the perception is you get a box room and it’s white – couldn’t be further from collaboration or collaborative space.”
What do you predict lies ahead for business needs or office space in Manchester?
DH: I can imagine there being more of a push towards virtual office spaces but within the office itself, so potentially where the barrier to entry for certain technology gets lower with things like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). I’ve seen concepts where you go into what’s almost like a small meeting room to use the likes of Google Glass and have what is essentially a meeting with remote people. They all look like they’re in the same space as you.
GS: VR and AR, absolutely – it’s going to be huge. I think there will be huge social issues around VR though because it’s so believable and the virtual world is so much more appealing than a lot of people’s existence that they’ll choose to spend more time in it, so it’ll be interesting. The possibilities of VR are immense.
OT: When people have talked about flexible working spaces they’ve tried to fix how you use them with things like room booking systems. You’re fixing something that needs to be flexible and you could say that about technology. For example, video conferencing rooms – are they a thing of the past because at most tech companies these days everyone is glued to their laptop, walking around and Skyping and sharing information. Being flexible and what that actually means is going to change and largely be driven by technology, but spaces will be less fixed and people are going to react to that using technology so it’s about how we can facilitate using technology.
Move Commercial’s Business Breakfast was held in…
Neo – Charlotte Street, Manchester, M1
Hailed as Bruntwood’s ‘most evolved workspace to date’, this vibrant Manchester city centre office building has the flexibility to accommodate small start-ups and established businesses alike. Well equipped with a diverse range of areas to collaborate and interact, it includes a roof terrace with all-weather pods, communal lounges and kitchens, presentation spaces and studios. Meanwhile an innovative approach to the transformation of the building, which was formerly known as Bank House, has added features such as an interactive digital art space, Bluetooth enabled mobile door access and an on-site gym. Visit www.bruntwood.co.uk for more information.